Salford born Shelagh Delaney was just 19 when she saw a Terence Rattigan play in Manchester and decided that she could do better, so she wrote “A Taste of Honey” and sent it to Joan Littlewood who produced it at The Theatre Royal Stratford, London in 1958.
It was a play that chimed perfectly with the times when theatrical tastes were moving away from the drawing room to the kitchen sink and 1950’s Britain was being depicted in a much more realistic way in films such as ‘Room at the Top’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘A Kind of Loving.’
The play is set in Salford in a dismal flat overlooking the gasworks and a slaughterhouse into which move Helen – whom Delaney memorably describes in the stage directions as ‘a semi-whore’ – and her daughter Jo. The flat is one in a long line of grim accommodations forced on schoolgirl Jo by her mother’s erratic lifestyle as they are evicted or have to flit from one to another. Part of this erratic lifestyle is the list of Helen’s unsuitable boyfriends, including a one eyed car salesman, none of whom impress Jo, who is very much the ‘grown up’ in the relationship – a sort of 1950’s version of ‘Absolutely Fabulous’. However Jo could be said to be a chip off the old block as she too engages in an unsuitable relationship, this time with a black sailor who abandons her to go back to sea, leaving her pregnant.
This latest production by The National Theatre begins its national tour quite rightly at the play’s spiritual home at the Lowry Theatre in Salford and features Jodie Prenger who plays Helen as a real force of nature, a larger than life character who dominates the stage every time she enters. Her relationship with her daughter Jo played by Gemma Dobson is the central theme of the play; there is love between them but it is very well hidden beneath a layer of bickering and caustic one-liners which the pair of them exchange from the very first scene.
Jodie Prenger conveys the complex nature of Helen’s personality really well; despite being outwardly hard and selfish she shows moments of caring and vulnerability and self doubt which create a very human, though not necessarily likeable character.
Gemma Dobson’s confidently plays Jo, an equally complex character who hides her vulnerability underneath a sassy shell which cracks occasionally, as when she talks of her fear of darkness. She says she’s not scared of the darkness outside, “It’s the darkness inside the houses that I’m scared of”. Right from the start she expresses her dislike of Helen – she rarely calls her “mother” – and her lifestyle, but as the play progresses we see her gradually morphing into her and you begin to feel sorry for her unborn child and the life it will inevitably lead.
The first of the men in the play we see is Peter, the one-eyed car salesman who, though ten years younger than Helen, embarks on a fling with her, leading to an inevitably doomed marriage. He is played by Tom Varey whom you may have seen on TV as one of the regular members of the “No Offence” cast. For me he didn’t totally convince as this brash personality – he simply wasn’t ‘big’ or hard enough and the scenes where he was drunk and haranguing Helen were not totally believable.
Jo’s sailor boyfriend is a difficult part because he is not onstage for very long but he is played with real sympathy by Durone Stokes, and the scene where he proposes to Jo, using a ring ‘from Woolworths’ is one of the most tender in the play, giving Jo the ‘taste of honey’ which turns out to be so bitter.
In the second act we are introduced to Geoff, a homosexual art student who moves in with Jo after her mother abandons her to live with Peter. He is excellently played by Stuart Thompson injecting compassion, sympathy and not a little humour into the part. One of the stand out sections of the play for me is when he sings “Mad About the Boy” whilst cleaning the flat, using the mop as both microphone and dancing partner.
Music is ever present throughout the play, indeed before it has even started and as the audience are taking their seats there is a jazz trio playing in a seedy smoky club whilst Helen sits at the piano smoking and occasionally quietly singing along. This is an excellent device from director, Bijan Sheibani, immediately setting the scene and creating the mood of the play. The trio – double bass, drums and piano – play throughout the performance, to assist scene changes and often under the dialogue, but sometimes accompanying the actors; Helen at one point sings a wonderfully bitter version of ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’.
The set, designed by Hildegard Bechtler is very sparse and minimalistic with its broken down sofa, bare electric light bulb and tin bucket accurately representing the squalor which Shelagh Delaney must have witnessed in Salford in the 1950’s. Only briefly, under the influence of Geoff does the flat resemble somewhere vaguely habitable, though this interlude is sadly short lived.
You may think from reading the above that this is a miserable, downbeat production, but there are many moments of genuine humour which punctuate the pathos,. Helen, Jo, and particularly Geoff elicited many laughs from an appreciative Lowry audience and I have no doubt will continue to do so as the play tours the UK. After the Lowry, the play goes on to Edinburgh, Canterbury, Richmond, Belfast, Leicester, Bath, Wolverhampton and finishes in Norwich. I would urge you to go and see it, as it is a production which breathes new life into a classic, groundbreaking play.
A Taste of Honey is at The Lowry until 21 September before continuing its UK Tour.